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York students and locals launch counter-protest

The anti-protest is helping to stop a 40-day vigil happening outside a local York clinic, which is distressing users of the clinic in question

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Image Credit: Lorie Shaull

On 07 October, two men sparked controversy in local York news by protesting outside of a British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic on Wenlock Terrace, York. In objection to the centre, the protestors are staging a 40-day prayer vigil against what they call a “modern-day holocaust,” as reported by The York Press . This action will inevitably cause distress to the users of the clinic, and the intimidating presence they bring to the building cannot be ignored.

Also reported in The York Press was a statement made by the organiser of the vigil, Sebastian Sanyal, who told them:
“Through our vigil, we are showing love towards women, their unborn children, and their families, sending the message that it is good and right to keep your child and wrong to abort it. We also pray for the staff members involved in abortion, for a change of heart and mind. Since receiving complaints about the physical direction of our prayer, we now face towards the clinic. By be - ing there, we are a witness to others that what has been going on there is unjust and inhuman.”

This action is not only taking place in York. Instead, it has become a nation-wide movement, with the American anti-abortion group, 40 Days for Life, staging vigils outside of centres across the country. However, upon seeing the demonstrations in York, local residents have responded with outrage and a call for action. As a result, they have formed a collective to help the clinic and stop the protesters from continuing their disruptive actions. Nouse was invited to attend a virtual meeting with these individu - als, who all came together to discuss ways of collectively acting against the protesters. Refreshingly, the group in question was a mixture of both students from the University, including members from FemSoc, as well as local residents. One such resident, Tom Shillito, set up a petition in response to the protests, asking for “safe zones to protect women from harassment outside abortion clinics.”

This was discussed heavily in the virtual meeting, with the group agreeing that this outcome was the most “achievable” and perhaps the best “goal” to aim for. The safe zone would effectively prevent protesters from coming within 100 meters of the centre, which would allow users of the clinic safe and in - timidation-free access to the building. Shillito writes that: “Ealing Council have taken mat - ters into their own hands by using a Public Spaces Protection Order to enforce 100m safe zones around abor - tion centres, so that women can access legal healthcare safely. We ask that York City Council follow their exam - ple and protect our communities from fear and intimidation.” The petition in question has grown exponentially in signatures over the past few days, beginning with less than 20 signatories, and has now amassed an impressive 2 086 signatures (at time of writing). Nouse urges readers to also help take action by signing the petition in question, which can be found at change.org/ yorksafezones.

Hope for this action being taken has increased with recent news, with Manchester implementing a no-protest zone outside an abor - tion clinic after three years of protests. These positive changes will hopefully lead to changes in York being imple - mented too. The conversation then turned to the subject of protesting itself, and what ways the collective believe is the best way to conduct physical action against the issue. Many ideas were raised, including the construction of signs to show at the centre and pro - testing outside of churches who support the vigil. However, the main point of agreement amongst the group was that of a peaceful, non-intimidating protest; a quiet presence at the cen - tre which neither directly harrasses the anti-abortion group, nor disrupts the local community surrounding the building istelf. One individual stated that “just by being there we can promote our message and show support.”

Shillito later went on to describe more in which ways the people of York can help the situation without direct and physical protesting. Instead, he discussed how calls to the police on 101 can help. He told us that reporting the group’s actions and telling the police how it affected them, can help the council under - stand the gravity of the situation and the amount of people who are outraged by it. Shillito later commented how this was almost a ‘battle of bureaucracy’ - which is perhaps the most constructive way to achieve the goals of the collective. The level of detail and care of how this collective wanted to approach the situation was clear in the discussion, with members consistently bringing up further issues and questions to discuss.

This emphasised the seriousness of this group, and how they want to approach the situation in a collected and organised manner. One member discussed the need to be careful in how we talk about the protesters themselves. They stated that they are “not Christians”, and made sure to specifically distinguish the group as “fundamentalists.” The member in question went on to say how they were a Christian themselves but also supported the pro-choice cause.

This raised the important issue of not grouping all religious individuals in the same group as the protesters. Labour councillors within York City Council have also shown their support of the cause, with councillor Aisling Musson fully supporting the creation of buffer zones around clinics, and Clifton Labour councillor, Danny Myers, also showing his sup - port of the buffer zones and his condemnation of the anti-choice protesters in a released statement.

The group is optimistic that change can occur and help for the centre can be achieved, as it was in Ealing. However, this cannot be done without the combined efforts of the people of York. If the current wave of activism within the city continues, the group’s aims could become a reality. If you want to get involved you can join the group’s Facebook page: “Counter Protest the Wenlock Terrace Vigil.”

Or simply, sign the petition at https://www.change.org/p/york-city-council-introduce-safe-zones-to-protect-women-from-harassment-outside-abortion-clinics?utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=custom_url&recruited_by_id=d76a3370-7ea2-11e3-83aa-a7ed8e8bf256

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